You might remember that I wrote a piece about the Welsh band, MAN, a few months ago when I was still a newbie to their music. Since then I have received some mind-blowing MAN albums, bursting with their eclectic blend of West Coast psychedelia, hard rock, blues, progressive rock, funk, Beatlesy harmonies, and top notch jamming. These albums have been beautifully remastered with excellent bonus material and packaging and new liner notes from one of the MAN legends himself, guitarist/singer/songwriter, Deke Leonard. The most recent reissues include the three albums, Back Into The Future, Slow Motion and Maximum Darkness.
I’ve got to say that these MAN reissues have been in very heavy rotation in my iTunes and iPod for the last couple months. I have gone from a complete ignorance of this band, not even having heard of them before 2008, to being converted to an unmitigated MAN fan by mid-2008. Why is MAN such a horribly overlooked band, you might ask? I’m really not sure, but my guesses are a) perhaps mismanagement (a la Moby Grape) and b) lack of radio hits. At least the Grateful Dead had “Truckin’” and “Casey Jones” But this isn’t necessarily mainstream music here either. This is music for music’s sake. Here’s my completely-biased account of the most recent set of MAN albums that have just been re-released on England’s Esoteric Recordings this summer.
Click on through for the juicy details…
The most recently-completed set of remasters might be my favorite of all the MAN material. It’s an eclectic lot of three stellar albums, and one of the albums is, in my mind, probably their masterpiece. The album is a studio effort called Slow Motion, and is absolutely brilliant from the cover art of Alfred E. Newman holding a fish to the sublime music inside. Another is a stellar live album, Maximum Darkness, which features MAN with guest John Cippolina, of Quicksilver Messenger Service fame. And the third album, Back Into The Future, was initially a double album, which now fits on a single CD. But two discs of a complete live 1973 MAN concert were added to this release to make it a whopping 3-disc set with 3 hours of music. And I know you can’t judge an album by its cover, but the cover art for all three of these albums is first-rate. Two of the three covers were done by renowned psychedelic artist, Rick Griffin, who did many Grateful Dead sleeves and psychedelic posters, with which you’re undoubtedly familiar. Here’s more on the albums individually, with a little bit of band member information, since personnel was something that was forever in flux with the MAN band…
1973’s Back Into The Future is the first of the releases chronologically, and places us at the tail end of original member, guitarist/singer Deke Leonard’s alleged exile from the band, which lasted for about a year and a half, at the most. But in that time, the band recorded two studio albums, which were actually starting to get them some wider recognition. As Deke Leonard comically divulges in the liner notes, he has for his band mates during that time ‘no retrospective animosity toward the ulcerous swine’. Oddly enough, Leonard did extensive liner notes for the whole remaster series…even the albums he wasn’t on. It’s lucky for us though, because his writing is quite clever and he has incredible anecdotes about the recordings and from life on the road.
Other original MAN guitarist and singer, Micky Jones, had added keyboardist Phil Ryan to the lineup for the first Leonard-less album, Be Good To Yourself At Least Once A Day, and then added another guitarist, young Tweke Lewis, to the mix for the recording of Back Into The Future. And there is plenty of both guitar and keyboard on this album, probably more keyboard than on any prior MAN albums. Back Into The Future’s studio material comes off as an upbeat dizzying blend of blues, rock, funk, and prog, with lots of excellent vocal harmonies throughout, most notably on the beautiful part-acoustic tune, “Don’t Go Away”, a song that also shows that the band new how to pull back on the proggy keyboard flourishes, sometimes goofy lyrics and busy dual guitar licks to present a very solid ballad.
Then, as Back Into The Future was originally a double album over four sides, we get to the live material that was on the second piece of vinyl. Enter the Gwalia Male Vocal Choir, which was invited to sing at a show with MAN, singing the traditional Welsh folk song, “Sospan Fach”. As it’s recounted in the excellent Manband Archive…
Phil Ryan describes the effect; “The choir didn’t know what to expect. They walked up the steps to the stage, saw the thousands of people and went GONK. The audience froze for a moment when sixteen guys in blazers and ties walked on. Then it was, ‘OK boyos, give me an A,’ and they were off, and it was incredible”.
And the choir adds an amazing vocal to the middle section of one of MAN’s live opuses, “C’mon”, this one clocking in at just over 19 minutes. This is a serious jam that never gets tedious. It’s actually a song that very much reminds me of Phish, with its “David Bowie”-ish ambient intro that eventually gives way to an upbeat blues riff that completely grooves when the drums and bass kick in. Then there’s a sublime slowed-down spacey middle section with trippy guitar and vocal effects and, in this case, a male choir, which all crescendo back into that familiar upbeat blues groove that just whips the audience back into a frenzy. Chill-enducing.
And that’s just the first CD in the Back Into The Future package. The next two discs give you a full MAN show from London’s Roundhouse in June of ’73, as well as two previously unreleased studio tracks. Jams galore!
On to the chronological second release in this batch of remasters, the studio album Slow Motion. By this release in November 1974, Deke Leonard had returned to the MAN fold. As they really cranked out albums back then, this was actually Leonard’s second album since his return. The music on this album may very easily be their absolute best studio work. With overall darker themes in songs like “You Don’t Like Us” and “Hard Way To Die” against the Leonard-penned ballad “Grasshopper” and the Jones-penned ballad “Rainbow Eyes”, the contrasts on this album are much richer than any prior MAN albums. The ballads are very-heavily Beatles-influenced, in the best kind of way, and once again prove that these jam-happy prog rockers know how to write and execute more concise, poppier material with the best of their peers of the era. In fact, there’s no good reason why “Grasshopper” is not a mega-hit, in my mind, with its somber strings and heavenly harmonies. The bonus material is primarily made up of great live material recorded in Berkeley, California in April of 1975…one of my favorite versions of the epic live staple “Many Are Called, But Few Get Up”.
And then we’re on to the third release, Maximum Darkness, a classic live MAN document recorded at the Roundhouse in London in May of 1975. The band had hooked up with Quicksilver Messenger Service’s guitarist and MAN role model, John Cipollina, while on tour in California and he joined them on stage for this performance. The end product is all the great MAN live goodness with one more amazing guitarist on top! The first three songs (which make up the albums first 25 minutes, or original vinyl’s first side) aren’t even MAN songs, per se; the first (“7171 551”) being a song from Deke Leonard’s solo venture, Iceberg, while the next two are Quicksilver songs that the band chose to play with Cipollina (“Codine” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”). The second side contained the MAN fan favorites, “Many Are Called, But Few Get Up” and “Bananas”, each clocking in at over 10 minutes. And I’ve got to say that these guys go up another coolness notch for using Vonnegut’s “everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt” in “Many Are Called…” The reissue gives us two more songs from a ’75 Berkeley show, one of them being an epic 24-minute “C’mon” romp!
If you’re new to MAN and love classic rock, you can’t go wrong with any of these new reissues, especially if you love guitar-driven jamming and great song-writing. Maximum Darkness is very jam-heavy, Slow Motion is a little more concise and poppy, and Back Into The Future with its 3-discs of material gives you plenty of both. If you are already a MAN fan, you probably already have all three, plus all the albums that Esoteric reissued last year.
Big props must go out to Mark Powell, manager at Esoteric Recordings, who researched and coordinated all the expanded CD reissues and Paschal Byrne at The Audio Archiving Company in London for the brilliant sound on all of the MAN reissues. And much respect to Esoteric Recordings, a very new division of Cherry Red Records, for reviving so much vital music and proving that music does still matter. Other artists on their roster include Jack Bruce, Egg, Curved Air, Paladin, Space Ritual (Hawkwind family), and the Keef Hartley Band, to name a few. And a huge ‘thank you’ to Vicky Powell at Esoteric who I’ve been directly in contact with and who has been tons of help and heaps of cool! I am a huge fan of MAN now because of Esoteric’s fine work and as a long-time music lover, I am still shocked that it took me so long to be introduced to them. So, if you haven’t heard them… I’m introducing you now!
Listen to “A Night In Dad’s Bag” from Back Into The Future… A Night In Dad’s Bag
This piece also published on Blog Critics Magazine